The journalists at BuzzFeed News are proud to bring you trustworthy and relevant reporting about the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member and sign up for our newsletter, Outbreak Today.
The coronavirus crisis is giving fresh life to an old conspiracy theory about a totalitarian world government seeking to kill most of the world’s population as part of a United Nations plot dating back to 1992.
A BuzzFeed News analysis of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram shows a sharp uptick in posts mentioning “Agenda 21” in recent weeks as the coronavirus crisis has taken hold around the world, although posts are often removed for breaching the platforms’ rules.
These posts and videos often link Agenda 21 with other tried and tested tropes of anti-government conspiracy theories, including vaccinations, Bill Gates, George Soros and 5G networks,
Many of the theories brought together by Agenda 21 are included in the list above, which has been shared hundreds of times after being posted in a Facebook group called ‘Yellow Vests Canada’ last week.
‘Agenda 21’ was a non-binding United Nations resolution signed in 1992 which provides an action plan for governments with regard to sustainable development.
But in the 22 years since it was signed, extremists have recast Agenda 21 it as a secret plot to impose a totalitarian world government and a nefarious effort to crush freedom in the name of environmentalism, according to a 2014 report by the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
“Fears are running rampant in the far right that [the coronavirus] is some part of a conspiracy, maybe by the Chinese government, other global actors, even George Soros, to do “something” to conservatives or Americans”, Heidi Beirich, one of the authors of the 2014 report, told BuzzFeed News.
“It’s not surprising that Agenda 21 would pop up again in that environment.”
Agenda 21 content is rife on YouTube, which has long had an issue with conspiracy theories.
“Agenda 21 will reduce the human population from almost 8 billion to around 750 million” according to one YouTube video viewed over 200,000 times since being uploaded earlier this week by ‘The Atlantis Report.
“This means that the UN is planning on killing just over 90% of the global population.”
A YouTube spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that this video does not violate the platform’s policies — harmful misinformation related to health gets removed but not general conspiracy theories. Some other videos were removed after being flagged.
Another post, shared several hundred times on Facebook after being posted by a page called ‘United States of Africa’, claims the coronavirus is part of a western biological plot to force vaccinations which would systematically reduce the population of Africa.
Opposition to vaccines is a common theme of posts citing Agenda 21, as is the idea that coronavirus is a plot to crash the economy in order to create the conditions for greater government control of businesses and people’s lives.
Anti-UN sentiment is a common trope on the US right —- politicians Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz, and commentator Glenn Beck, have all referenced Agenda 21 in speeches.
The Republican Party’s 2012 platform said “we strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty” and legislators in several states have introduced anti-Agenda 21 bills.
However, much of the recent online conversation about Agenda 21 and the coronavirus goes far beyond legitimate criticism of big government and environmental overreach, and into the world of outlandish conspiracy.
“It’s no surprise to see a re-emergence of this decades-old theory, which our research has found to be flourishing across social media” says Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a think tank.
“This is incredibly dangerous in the context of a global pandemic, as conspiracies almost always urge people to doubt the official advice from government and the NHS, for example to reject an eventual vaccine or social distancing rules, putting themselves and the rest of society at risk.”
Many of the biggest posts citing Agenda 21 are posted in languages other than English.
One video in Tamil linking the resolution to “forced vaccinations” has more than 600,000 views. Facebook posts in Spanish and Hungarian also have thousands of shares.
The conspiracy theory is also widespread on Instagram, with accounts posting about coronavirus using the hashtag #agenda21 in recent weeks including freedom_faction and the_eye_is_on_us, two Instagram accounts with over 200,000 followers.
Both Facebook, which owns Instagram, and YouTube, told BuzzFeed News they have policies to combat harmful misinformation, are monitoring false claims relating to the coronavirus, and promoting content from trusted sources such as health authorities.’
Posts about ‘Agenda 21 have not exclusively been shared by accounts usually dedicated to pushing conspiracy theories.
For example “moonmaison”, an Instagram influencer with almost half a million followers who describes herself as a “goddess of love and sex” says: “I’m not down with [the coronavirus] and lies”, and implores her followers to investigate Agenda 21, 5G networks, and chemtrails.
Some posts do not explicitly mention the coronavirus but include knowing references, like a YouTube video by a poster called PapaDuck called ‘Let Me Introduce You To What’s Really Happening Its Called “Agenda 21”.
It has had over 180,000 views in the last fortnight and has attracted lots of comments linking the conspiracy theory to the virus.
A YouTube video by British conspiracy theorist David Icke called ‘Agenda 21, The Plan To Kill You’ has had 3.7m views since it was uploaded in 2016, and recent comments invariably reference the coronavirus.
There is also a lot of overlap between the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theories linking the coronavirus to 5G mobile phone networks.
Many of the claims used to support the Agenda 21 theory are completely made up.
However one piece of evidence which has been circulating online over the past couple of days, including in posts mentioning Agenda 21, is a genuine letter from a Welsh doctors’ surgery recommending patients with serious health problems fill in “do not resuscitate” forms.
A spokesperson for Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the letter was sent out to “a small number of patients” and said “staff at the surgery are speaking to those patients who received the letter to apologise directly and answer any concerns they may have”.
This slip-up, and the speed with which it spread across the internet, demonstrates how the atmosphere is so ripe for conspiracy theories at the moment.
People are scared, officials occasionally overreact or make human errors, and governments are massively increasing their powers in countries all around the world.
A couple of weeks ago BuzzFeed News debunked a rumour that was spreading like wildfire on WhatsApp in the UK, which claimed UK troops had been deployed onto the streets of south London because of the coronavirus.
In normal times this would be too outlandish to be widely believed, but with the military helping enforce lockdowns in France and Belgium, the rumour spread very quickly and was believed by a lot of people.
Coronavirus is absolutely not a United Nations plot to kill billions of people.
But it’s easy to see why people are more likely to believe outlandish conspiracy theories in times like these.